For college sophomore Matthew Walzer, simply putting on his shoes was an impossible task. Lacking the dexterity to get his foot in and out of his shoes, the Florida teen, who was born with cerebral palsy, had to enlist the help of his mother and father or others. While he could dress himself, Walzer, 19, told The Huffington Post, “shoes were the one issue” he had learned to deal with and accept.
Until he wanted change.
“By the time you turn 16," he said, "it gets frustrating or embarrassing if you're out with your friends and your shoe comes untied and you have to ask your friend, ‘Hey, can you bend down and tie my shoe for me?’”
So he decided to do something about it. Walzer, then in high school, sent a letter to Nike, first reaching out in 2012. He was intimidated, he said, but persistent.
“It took me a couple years to kind of just figure out exactly what I wanted to say in the right way,” he said.
But luckily for Walzer, his letter ended up in the hands of Nike CEO Mark Parker, who in turn passed it along to Tobie Hatfield, the company’s senior director of athlete innovation. Coincidentally, Hatfield had just embarked on his own journey to explore what Nike could do to help athletes facing physical challenges as well as the Challenged Athletes Foundation.
What resulted in the three years since was a partnership between Walzer and Hatfield’s team at Nike that culminated Monday with the company's unveiling of the Zoom Soldier 8 Flyease. The shoe is the first of its kind for the company, and perhaps any athletic brand specifically designed and dedicated to help those with disabilities and difficulties of buying and wearing shoes. It will be available July 16 in limited quantities at Nike.com for North America.
“We used Matthew as a muse, which was awesome because he couldn’t believe that a big company would do something for him,” Hatfield told HuffPost.
Hatfield began his work in developing shoes and technology for athletes with disabilities back in 2006 with Sarah Reinertsen, a professional paratriathlete, whose leg was amputated when she was 7 years old.
“She was mentioning how much of a hassle it is to buy a pair of shoes, cut the shoe ... and fit it and glue it on, velcro it on, tape it on, all that kind of stuff,” Hatfield recalled. “She was like, really sheepishly, ‘Do you think, you could maybe help?’ And I looked at it and I said, ‘Damn, Sarah, you have to do all of that?’”
Hatfield said that while Reinertsen struggled, she acknowledged the greater difficulties faced by other amputees she worked with who didn’t have the support system of a professional athlete.
“She said the hassle factor was too high, that they wouldn’t even get out and be active because of it. And I said, ‘That’s just not acceptable. We can do better,’” Hatfield said.
Nike Sole, a foam cover for the carbon fiber prosthetic blade developed in 2012, is now used by amputees like Reinertsen and others while competing or participating in physical activity.
However, the technology that wasn't the only groundbreaking factor. The company's distribution of the product proved innovative as well. For the first time in its history, Nike handed over the intellectual property of a design to another organization -- Össur, an orthopaedics and prosthetics company.
“They know their consumer base way better than we do,” Hatfield said.
From there, he began to learn about other challenged athletes -- “not just amputees, but people with cerebral palsy, people with diabetes” -- and to work toward solutions to make their lives easier. It was also an area that hit close to home for the Nike family, after Jeff Johnson, the company’s first employee suffered a stroke in 2004, subsequently losing use of the right side of his body.
“He couldn’t put his shoes on because of that, he couldn’t tie them. So, similar to cerebral palsy where you lose your dexterity, you lose the feeling and you the ability essentially -- what we take for advantage, to put shoes on and to tie them -- they couldn’t tie them,” Hatfield said.
With Walzer’s letter, success with Reinertsen and the motivation to help Johnson, Hatfield created Flyease technology, which, he says, allows for rear entry and no laces to tie, while still managing to provide support.
“Easy entry, easy access, easy adjustment, easy closure,” he said of the shoe.
Hatfield demonstrates the Flyease easy entry technology. (Credit: Nike)
The first iteration of Flyease appears on the Zoom Soldier 8, a LeBron James Nike series. (The Cleveland Cavalier star also happens to be Walzer’s favorite athlete.) The structure of a basketball hi-top shoe also provides the ankle support needed by people who may have cerebral palsy.
“It just made sense that we connected all of those dots,” Hatfield said.
"There is a real need for a solution like this and it feels good to be a part of something that is going to help so many people," James said on Nike.com.
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As part of the Zoom Soldier series, Flyease technology will stay with Nike and be sold and distributed by the company. For Walzer, the ability to buy a shoe from Nike rather than a specialized company is a transformative experience.
"Up until working with Nike, when I needed a new pair of shoes, we had to go the mall and make a day out of it. We'd go to every store,” Walzer said. “Before even seeing if they were comfortable, it had to be easy for my parents to get my foot into the shoe.”
Hatfield echoed Walzer, saying selling the shoe will give the opportunity for many others “to be able to utilize something that really wasn’t ever designed for them before until now.”
For Nike, it could mean more partnerships, Hatfield said, particularly with the military, which is also at the forefront of progress for injured veterans. Working with Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio, Texas, which helps military amputees and burn victims, Hatfield said Nike helped shoes fit better with medical braces.
Hatfield underscored that while Nike is excited about what it’s been able to accomplish so far for people with disabilities, the company “want[s] to do it right.”
If Walzer can, he’ll be a part of that team. His dream is to be working for Nike in the future in some capacity, he said. For both men, the Zoom Soldier 8 Flyease means, in a way, more than the company has ever achieved before for any major star or athlete.
“It’s so important for quality of life, it’s not always about trying to win a gold medal or achieve a world record,” Hatfield said, before invoking Nike's mantra: “If you have a body, you’re an athlete”
With the release of the Zoom Soldier 8 Flyease, Hatfield said the company is already working on further developments, including a running shoe that incorporates Flyease technology. The Zoom Soldier 8 Flyease will be sent to the two U.S. basketball teams participating in the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles from July 25 through Aug. 2. Hatfield added that Nike has also been working with the U.S. Paralympic Rugby Wheelchair team on technology that makes it easier for athletes to remain in the chair while competing.
“It’s basically kind of kickstarted a lot of work in this area,” Hatfield said of the shoe and the company’s hopes to continue innovating.
“Once you start down this road, I don’t know how you could ever go back,” he said.